A Visit to Savannah, Georgia Made Me Believe In Ghosts
I have always considered myself to be open to the unexplainable. To the occult. It’s part of what drew me to work as a historic tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary, an abandoned prison and museum in Philadelphia that is believed to be one of the most haunted places in America. It’s why I read science fiction and love scary movies and ghost stories. Yet, at almost 27, I had never had a paranormal experience.
Until, that is, I went to Savannah, Georgia.
The south has a hold of me in ways nowhere else does. In fact, I have plans to move below the Mason Dixon as soon as possible. I’m even getting married in New Orleans in a few months’ time. I love the food, the music, the people, the Gothic literature, and all of the tales of murder hauntings that seem to breathe in the south as much as the music, food, and heat.
My friend, Casey, and I decided to go on vacation after an especially grueling couple months at work. Savannah was my suggestion. I have felt drawn to that city for years, though my limited knowledge consisted of a few ghost stories and the location of a dueling piano bar another friend had recommended. To prepare for the trip, I bought Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt and pulled out my dusty copy of Wiseblood by Flannery O’Connor, whose childhood home is in Savannah.
I knew nothing about the shooting at the Mercer-Williams House portrayed in Berendt’s book or much of the city’s history. I didn’t embark on the trip expecting to commune with spirits; I planned to go on historical tours, drink, eat, and collect ghost stories.
I accomplished all of this and feel I learned enough that I could become a tour guide on one of the trolleys weaving around the picturesque squares of Savannah.
I also received something I never expected or hoped for—several paranormal experiences.
The first one happened in the middle of the night.
Each night of the trip I woke up on the cusp of or in the middle of the Witching Hour, that period of time between 3 and 4 am said to be when the veil between the living and dead is its weakest. Essentially, paranormal activity is heightened during this hour. Each time I awoke, I was paralyzed by fear, doubt, and worry, waiting and peering into the dark for something, anything to happen. Nothing ever did, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone or something was there with me. Observing me.
The next two occurrences happened during a ghost tour on the second evening of the trip. Casey and I met our group and our guide, Adam, in Chippewa Square at quarter of 10 PM. Adam was attractive and funny. He spoke in colloquial terms and would start a story with, “So this one dude…” His charming outlook kept the tour—with its tales of murder and suicide and betrayal—fairly light.
When the tour began, my stomach started to knot, something twisting and writhing inside of me. I wasn’t sure if it was the cocktails from the Ghost Coast Distillery earlier that afternoon or the barbecue fries at BowTie. I did my best to ignore my stomach and listen to our guide.
It was when we reached Monterey Square right in front of the Mercer-Williams House that I could no longer ignore what was going on with my body. The knot in my stomach had worsened, making me almost fold over in pain. I started to swallow, the taste of phlegm and bile in my throat. Adam shared the story of Jim Williams, an antiques dealer responsible for saving much of historic Savannah, shooting and killing Danny Hansford, a 21-year-old sex worker, in the study of the first floor of the house. I knew this story from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
However, the guide then told us a story I wasn’t familiar with. In 1969, a young boy named Tommy Downs and his friend broke into the then-abandoned house and got onto the roof to shoot pigeons. Tommy’s friend said he started acting strangely, spasming, until he reached the edge of the roof. The boy was adamant that Tommy didn’t fall by accident; he reported a strange figure appeared and pushed Tommy over. Tommy fell off the roof and was killed, his skull impaled by the top of the wrought iron fence that surrounded the property. The tip of one of the spikes had snapped off in his head. As the tour guide described Tommy’s death, I started to sweat, feeling overheated. As we walked closer to the house to look for the ghost of Tommy, my vision started to blur and then darken until I couldn’t see at all. Luckily, Casey was beside me and helped me sit down on a stoop in front of the house. Within 20 seconds, my vision started to return.
A minute later, Adam suggested the group move to the next stop. As soon as I moved away from the house, I felt considerably better, my stomach pain and nausea gone, my vision fully restored, and my body temperature cooled.
After my experience at the Mercer-Williams House, I decided to sit whenever possible for the duration of the tour. When we reached the Espy house I sat in between Casey and an older woman on a bench. I listened to Adam tell the unsettling story of the Espy family and what had happened in the house. Carl Espy, the patriarch, was a federal judge who made extra money bootlegging alcohol during prohibition. He and his wife were known to get inebriated and fight, basically tearing each other apart. One night the casualty was their six-year-old granddaughter, Katie, who was crushed under a marble table that got turned over. Apparently Katie haunts the house. However, she seems to be a benevolent spirit simply trying to find a playmate.
Her death wasn’t the only tragedy for the family. Katie’s father, Wesley, fell in love with a gangster’s girlfriend. He was warned to stay away from her and when he didn’t, his parents found his body outside of their home, bleeding profusely. They couldn’t initially find the source of the blood, but the gangster had cut off Wesley’s testicles and put them in his jacket pocket. He died because his parents refused to call the police until eight hours later, hoping they could stop the bleeding and avoid another scandal.
It was as the guide told this second part of the story that I felt a hand grip my right side, spanning from my hip and ribs. It was a forceful, fleeting grab. Instinctively, I looked behind my right shoulder, but no one was there. My friend and the woman sitting beside me were focused on the tour, unaware of my panic. Whoever had grabbed me had vanished.
The tour finished without any further incidents. That night I was awake the entire Witching Hour, sweating profusely. It didn’t matter how many layers of clothing or blankets I took off or how much water I drank, I couldn’t stop perspiring.
The next day the final paranormal experience of the trip happened. Casey and I went to Bonaventure Cemetery, a scenic, 160-acre property along the Wilmington River. We spent a few hours walking along gravel paths lined by majestic live oaks dripping in Spanish moss that resembled a mummy’s bandages hung out to dry. It was eerily quiet and empty except for the sawing of the tree workers. It sounded like a banshee shrieking.
About 20 minutes into our wandering, we came across the Jewish section of the cemetery. This area is more open than many sections as the trees are set back, creating a field of graves. The sky was a deep blue with fluffy white clouds and no sun, which created a brooding, ominous setting. I stood on the edge of the gravel path, the grass licking the tip of my toes. I took three photos to make sure I’d captured the shot I desired. Then I scrolled through them to choose which one to keep.
When I got to the second photo, I saw something unusual. The photo seemed to be cut in half horizontally, with the bottom section becoming a hazy blur and the top resembling infrared photos; the field was indiscernible in the top half, cloaked in vibrant shades of crackling blue and green. I swiped to the next photo; it looked exactly like the first. Completely normal.
When I worked at Eastern State Penitentiary visitors would often come up to show me a photo they had taken, that to them proved that the abandoned prison was haunted. Usually there would be a blur in the photo, sometimes a shadow that could be a ghost or, as I often thought, just a shadow. Paranormal investigators had visited the site numerous times, and from those kinds of TV shows and movies, I’ve always considered there to be a link between infrared images and paranormal activity. In one photo, at one section of a giant graveyard, I had both shadows and blurs and an infrared image.
You’ll find two of the photos I took. One is what I got the first and third time:
This next photo is the second photo I just described. To me, it indicates paranormal activity.
Less than 24 hours later, Casey and I left Savannah. The last night, as all the others, I woke up during the Witching Hour, but nothing else bizarre or unexplainable happened to me.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve slept through the night. I haven’t felt nauseous or dizzy or lost vision. I haven’t been grabbed. No strange photos have been found on my phone.
I’m aware that all that I’ve detailed here can be explained away scientifically. A week ago I would have been inclined to do just that. Savannah, supposedly one of the most haunted cities in the country, one that is literally built on graves, may have gotten into my head. Yet I can’t explain what happened to me in any other terms than this because what I felt was too real, too chilling, too mysterious, to all be an illusion.
Savannah opened my eyes and my senses to something I thought only existed in movies and TV and folk tales passed down by word of mouth. Savannah made me believe in ghosts.